An anti-government protester reacts as he and other demonstrators shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sana’a on Tuesday. Yemen’s embattled president has accused the United States and Israel of trying to destabilise his country and the Arab world. Image Credit: AP

Authoritarian rulers are afraid of losing their power before the relentless advance of the Arab revolution. Washington vacillated between support for the Egyptian revolutionaries and understanding for the Mubarak position. America may be said to be moderately cautious about future developments; Israel is clearly apprehensive.

Neither the US nor Israel know what it is like to deal with a democratically elected Arab ruler truly representing the will of the people. They were clearly more comfortable with authoritarian rulers quickly acceding to their demands and assuring them of ‘stability' even at the cost of repression and denial of human rights.

Consider the following example. During the 2003 American preparations for the invasion of Iraq, while the Arab street was strongly opposed to the American war against Iraq, Arab rulers in Egypt, Jordan and other countries cooperated with Washington and facilitated its military strategy. The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, reflecting the Turkish people's sentiment, presented the American request for permission to use Turkish territories to invade Iraq, to the Turkish Parliament. An overwhelming majority rejected the American request, even though Turkey is a member of Nato.

To understand the magnitude of the Arab revolution sweeping across the Arab world, we should place it in context. For instance, can we speak of Arab revolutionaries?

Revolt against Ottoman rule

Up until the wave of revolutions that is sweeping the Arab world, with dramatic results in Tunisia and Egypt, history did not record an Arab revolution and much less Arab revolutionaries. There is to be sure the 1916 Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, facilitated and ultimately betrayed by England, which along with France divided the Middle East among themselves instead of upholding the promise to establish and support an independent Arab state.

There is also the 1952 military coup that overthrew the monarchy and deposed former Egyptian king Farouk. The Free Officers who mounted the bloodless coup claimed that this was a revolution for the people. And textbooks usually referred to the coup as a revolution. But it was not a revolution for democracy. Although former Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser's agrarian reform was designed to advance social justice, his harsh treatment of his opponents and denial of democratic freedoms led to the establishment of the police state that former presidents Sadat and Mubarak came to rely on to consolidate their autocratic rule.

This begs the question: Why the glaring absence of democratic revolutionary traditions in the Arab world? It may be the centuries of domination under Ottoman rule, or the long and humiliating colonial intervention by England in Egypt, by France in Algeria and Tunisia, and by the Italians in Libya.

While these may be necessary explanations they are not sufficient. Colonialism ended some 40 to 60 years ago; how do we explain the fact that Arab self-governance was among the worst in the world: Anachronistic monarchs; psychopaths and wanted criminals; megalomaniacs and authoritarian rulers. How do we explain the fact that some 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and countless human rights conventions, respect for human rights in the Arab world has been the exception rather than the rule?

We could blame Washington. But we forget that like any great power the US has interests, as do we, and we could learn to deal with one another on the basis of respect and mutual interests. This was the powerful message US President Barack Obama gave in his historic Cairo speech in June 2009.

We could blame Israel. But we have done that for years with nothing to show for it. You would think that with the failure of the blame strategy we would learn some lessons and change strategy. Our hanging on to a failed strategy was the product of deliberate choices made by failed authoritarian regimes to perpetrate their hold on power.

New York Times writer Thomas L. Friedman goes further and argues that our rulers lied to us and taught us to hate Israel to justify their hold on power. This is going too far because while our rulers may have lied to us, they did not need to teach us to hate Israel. Israeli policies did that: the occupation, the dispossession, the collective punishment and the regular wars against its neighbours did that.

Nonetheless, one of the unique features of the January 25 Egyptian revolution has been its focus on fundamental freedoms and liberties, on democratic governance reforms and on social justice.

One of the remarkable responses to the democratic demands of the Egyptian revolution was the intervention by the Israeli lobby (which argued for years that Washington should throw its weight exclusively behind Israel because Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East) to request the support of the White House to save Mubarak and deny democracy to Egypt.


Adel Safty is Distinguished Professor Adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.